Modern Classics: Leica MP and Voigtländer 50mm f/3.5 Heliar Lens

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Leica’s latest digital rangefinder camera—the Leica M10—is an undeniable derivative of the Leica M3, a revolutionary film camera first introduced in 1954. Place an M3 or, for that matter, any Leica M-series film camera side-by-side with an M10 and you can’t help but notice how faithful the flagship digital camera is to its film-based ancestor in terms of design and functionality. Better yet—the M10 accepts almost every M-mount lens made since 1954.

Yet despite Leica’s full-fledged embrace of digital technology, Leica still produces not one, but two analog cameras to satisfy the needs and desires of what’s become a growing resurgence of film photographers.

The Leica M7, originally introduced in 2003, was the first M camera containing an electronic shutter that enabled manual and Aperture-priority operation. The M7 was welcomed by forward thinkers and derided by purists, who believe Leica cameras have been and should always be totally mechanical in nature.

The Leica MP (MP stands for “Mechanical Perfection”) was introduced a year later, in 2004. Like the original M3, the MP is totally mechanical. The camera’s 12mm center-spot meter is the only non-mechanical component in the camera. If the battery dies, you can continue shooting until you run out of film. But there are other attributes of the MP that make it rather special.

The Leica MP used in this review was found in the B&H Used Department. The blue calfskin leather covering was custom ordered from Leica. The Voigtländer 50mm f/3.5 Heliar we used is a new lens from our inventory.

When designing the MP, which is handmade in Solms, Germany, the goal of Leica’s engineers was to combine the best attributes of the M3 and M6, two of Leica’s most popular M-series rangefinder cameras.

Despite its petite size and profile, the Leica MP (available in silver or black) is a relatively heavy camera, mostly due to the fact that there’s virtually zero plastic used in its construction. The camera is a masterpiece of hand-assembled metal alloy and brass, including its bottom and top plates, the latter of which is engraved (not stamped!) with the Leica name in script. Interestingly, the MP does not sport the iconic red Leica dot logo on the front plate—something many Leica owners display with pride.

The MP is built to higher quality standards than previous M-series cameras. The film advance has been beefed up, making it smoother and quieter. Ditto for the camera’s shutter mechanism, which now features a bronze-alloy frame and a redesigned shutter mechanism for better exposure consistency. The camera’s top plate has also been redesigned to make the rangefinder less prone to misalignment due to minor impacts, and the viewfinder is brighter compared to previous M cameras.

M3-inspired components incorporated into the MP include an all-metal film advance lever in place of the plastic-tipped film advance found on later models; a shorter, though slightly taller top plate for better rangefinder protection; and an M3-style film rewind knob (loved by some, hated by others), which can be replaced with an M6-style rapid rewind winder for an additional fee.

Carryovers from the M6 include the camera’s film-loading system, TTL light meter (minus TTL flash control), and shutter-speed dial. Leica’s traditional Vulcanite body has been replaced by a newer material on the MP. Flare in the camera’s viewfinder, which proved to be a point of contention among M6 and early model M7 owners, has been addressed.

In Use

Shooting with a Leica M camera differs from shooting with a DSLR or mirrorless camera. For starters, there aren’t any menus to scroll through. Exposure control consists of a shutter speed dial and an aperture ring, which you set according to your choice of film and the amount of available light. Focusing is manual and is based on aligning a pair of split images of your subject through the camera’s rangefinder system which, for the record, is deadly accurate and easy to view—indoors or out. Did I mention how quiet the shutter is? (It’s very quiet, and the sound it does make is definitively analog.)

A selection of photographs taken with the Leica MP and Voigtländer 50mm f/3.5 Heliar on Kodak Tri-X and Kodak T-Max 100

Attributes you lose with a rangefinder camera include the ability to preview depth-of-field, close-focusing capabilities, the need to use optical finders for lenses wider than 28mm, and the ability to use lenses longer than 135mm without resorting to a reflex housing. Something you gain when shooting with a rangefinder camera is the ability to see beyond the image frame lines, which can prove invaluable when street shooting.

The Voigtländer 50mm f/3.5 Heliar

The newest Voigtländer 50mm f/3.5 Heliar is the latest of a series of 50mm Heliars Voigtländer has produced since the year 1900. Simple in design (5 elements in 3 groups), the 50mm Heliar is considered to be among the sharpest lenses available. It’s noted for its unique optical signature, i.e., sharp detail; optimized contrast; smooth transitions between shadow and highlight areas; rich, neutral saturation levels; and, thanks in part to a 10-blade diaphragm, out-of-focus image qualities that define—not to mention predate the term “bokeh.”

The 50mm Heliar has a slim, retro pagoda-style profile. Polished metal surfaces are broken by a pair of matte-black bands. A nice aesthetic touch is the Heliar lens formula, which is engraved, midsection, on the lens barrel.

As with the Leica MP, there isn’t a hint of plastic in this lens. It’s made of metal alloy and, despite its diminutive size (2 x 1.7"), the weight of the lens (7.4 oz) is enough to make you take notice the first time you pick one up. The aperture and focus rings are smooth and tight with nary a hint of wobble or drag. Despite its modest cost, the high-quality construction and attention to detail of this lens greatly complements the structural integrity of the Leica MP camera body. That’s the good news.

Determining the lens aperture and adjusting it without changing focus on this lens can be as squirrely as changing a car tire in the middle of an ice skating rink. Part of the reason has to do with the f/stop and focus markings, which are finely engraved into the lens barrel and detailed with black enamel. The look and finish is stunning, but if you’re over a certain age you best keep your reading glasses handy.

The second part of the problem is the de-clicked aperture ring which, unless you master what I call the “Three-Digit Fox Trot,” invariably requires you to refocus the lens whenever you change apertures.

However, I really love this lens. In addition to shooting film with the Leica MP, I’ve also had an opportunity to use this lens on a Sony A7R II—a camera with a 42MP imaging sensor that, unlike 400-speed Tri-X, truly demonstrates the imaging capabilities of this lens. (Spoiler alert—It’s amazing.)

Perhaps the coolest aspect of the Leica MP and the Voigtländer 50mm f/3.5 Heliar is that, despite the fact they are relics from another time and place, they’re still in production, and they still do what they were designed to do impeccably well.

Do you have any experience with a classic Leica or Voigtländer lens? If so, we’d love to hear about it.

4 Comments

I like the article other than one major mistake in the second paragraph. "Leica makes not one, but two film cameras". They actually make 3 models of film cameras. The latest being the Leica M-A released a couple of years ago.

Ah-hah! Good catch my friend. The M-A, an all-mechanical M-series camera that's such a 'purists' camera it doesn't even have a light meter, is indeed still available.

How did you use the Voigtlander (M-mount) lens with a Sony A7?

There are a number of Leica M to Sony E-mount adapters available at B&H. My preference is the Voigtlander VM-E Close Focus Adapter, which features a 4mm helicoid that enables close focusing with all M-mount lenses

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